Editor's Note: “A Look at Times Gone By” is an in-depth look at weekly Times Gone By entries compiled since 2015. These articles will appear in each edition as local teams anticipate new seasons, whenever they should resume.
Two years after the NSAA state football playoffs were established, Washington County joined the party in 1977.
The Blair Bears and Arlington Eagles earned their way onto the eight-team Class B bracket, while Fort Calhoun picked up a celebration-worthy regular season win during the monumental campaign.
Preseason expectations varied at each school, though all three had reasons for optimism. Bears coach Mike Lehl told a reporter he expected a “dogfight” in the Twin Rivers Conference's Northern Division, citing the return of 13 letterwinners from the 7-2 1976 BHS squad.
In comparison, Eagles coach Jack Guggenmos had 13 seniors to hang his hat on after a 3-5-1 run the year before.
Fort Calhoun's new head instructor, Earl Finney, meanwhile, had hopes of reversing the Pioneers' poor luck in previous seasons alongside assistants Dennis Brummer and Mike Moore. The team he took over was 0-8-1 in 1976 and hadn't won a game in multiple seasons.
“We expect to win games and this is that attitude that we are getting across to the players,” Finney said before the campaign.
While FCHS lost its opener 24-8 to Lyons, Arlington and Blair got off to a running start. The Eagles topped Elkhorn 24-12, while the Bears routed Plattsmouth 26-6 in a downpour.
AHS bested the Blue Devils 14-0 during the next week of play, while Blair tied Wayne to drop to 1-0-1. Lehl's team moved to 1-1-1 the week after, too.
The Eagles, in turn, were cruising at 3-0 when Fort Calhoun earned its first win in 26 games to improve to 1-1-1 itself. The Pioneers topped East Butler 7-6 with Steve Bilderback scoring a 32-yard touchdown run and Lonnie Suverkrubbe knocking through the decisive extra-point kick.
Coach Finney's kicker delivered again a week later, scoring the lone points of a 3-0 win at Waterloo. Fort Calhoun later added a 21-6 homecoming game victory against Yutan, but finished 3-5-1 with a 17-14 loss to Malcolm.
Arlington and Blair, meanwhile, kept rolling through their schedules.
The Bears clinched the Northern Division with a 0-0 tie against Syracuse before ending the regular season with wins against Elkhorn (20-14) and then Missouri Valley, Iowa. They knew their state playoff chances were going to come down to that finale.
“This is the most important game of the year and we are all hoping the fans really turn out for this one,” BHS captain Shane Petersen told the Enterprise.
At the time, Nebraska high school football didn't have an overtime, but Iowa did.
Thankfully for the Bears, the 6-0 win came east of the Missouri River. It allowed John Jarosz to score the winning touchdown during extra time that wouldn't have existed had the game been played at home.
Arlington, meanwhile, had no problem reaching the playoffs. The Eagles finished a 9-0 regular season with a 50-0 whooping of Holy Name.
A bit earlier in the year, Bill Wehner ran for 137 yards and three touchdowns as his team earned a conference title with a 20-0 win against Platteview. Todd Buchardt — who also received credit for writing the Enterprise report — connected with Rex Meier for the only points Wehner didn't score.
Arlington entered the playoffs as Class B's No. 2 team against Minden, while No. 8 Blair anticipated tough competition against No. 1 Schuyler — the defending state champion.
Coach Guggenmos credited his AHS team's success to the seniors, a “very special group of young men.” Wehner had 1,109 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns going into the playoffs, while Rocky Nelson led the defense.
“(Rocky) is really tearing people up,” Guggenmos said. “He's just been awesome the last few games.”
Unfortunately for Washington County, 1977 ended without a playoff victory. Blair came close, leading until Schuyler scored with 2 minutes left before falling 21-18. Jarosz had two touchdown runs and Dave Clifford hit John Blobaum on a scoring pass in defeat.
Arlington, meanwhile, was upset by the Whippets 28-0 for its first loss. The 28 points scored against the Eagles were just 12 short of what Guggenmos' squad had given up the entire history-making regular season.